Man accused of hitting pedestrians in NYC threatened JSO officers in 2012

Teen killed, 22 other pedestrians injured when car drives down sidewalk

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter , Jim Piggott - Reporter , Francesca Amiker - Reporter , Colleen Long- Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A 26-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who authorities said steered his car onto a sidewalk running through Times Square and mowed down pedestrians for three blocks Thursday, killing a teenager, was arrested in Jacksonville in 2012, accused of beating a cab driver and threatening to kill police.

After Thursday's crash, Richard Rojas was charged with second-degree murder, aggravated vehicular homicide and multiple counts of attempted murder.

Reuters reported that after Rojas was arrested, he said, "You were supposed to shoot me! I wanted to kill them."

Rojas, who enlisted in the Navy in 2011, was as an electrician's mate and spent time at Naval Air Station Jacksonville and Mayport Naval Station. In 2012, he served aboard the U.S.S. Carney, a destroyer.

He was arrested by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office at the barracks in September 2012 on charges of battery and resisting an officer. According to the report, Rojas refused to pay the driver a $162 fare.

According to the report, Rojas told officers: "I beat the s*** out of that cab driver and I'll tell you why. I owed him $162. I beat the s*** out of him. He disrespected me!"

DOCUMENT: 2012 arrest report of Richard Rojas

Rojas also said he would, "Kill all police and military police he might see after he is released from jail," according to the report.

The charges were later dropped.

Rojas spent his final months in the Navy at NAS Jacksonville, before being discharged in 2014 as the result of a special court martial, a Navy official said. Details were not immediately available.

During his three years in the Navy, he was awarded the National Defense Service Medal.

A week ago, Rojas, a Bronx resident, was arrested and charged with pointing a knife at a notary, whom he accused of stealing his identity. He pleaded guilty to a harassment violation.

He was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated in 2008 and 2015, police Commissioner James O'Neill said. He pleaded guilty to an infraction in 2015 and was ordered to complete a drunken-driving program and lost his license for 90 days.

In previous arrests, he told authorities he believed he was being harassed and followed, one of the law enforcement officials said.

In the Bronx, neighborhood acquaintances said Rojas was a friendly man who had been having problems. Harrison Ramos said Rojas wasn't the same when he came back from active duty in 2014.

"He's been going through a real tough time," Ramos said.

A law enforcement source told CNN on Thursday that Rojas tested positive for PCP and told police that God made him do it. 

Car mows down Times Square pedestrians for blocks, killing 1

Rojas emerged from his wrecked vehicle wild-eyed and screaming before he was subdued by police and bystanders, according to authorities. 

He told officers he was hearing voices and expected to die, two law enforcement officials said.

Helpless pedestrians had little time to react as the car barreled down the sidewalk and through intersections before smashing into a row of steel security barriers installed to prevent vehicle attacks on the square, where massive crowds gather every New Year's Eve. The car came to rest with its two right wheels in the air.

IMAGES: Car runs over pedestrians in Times Square

Police said 23 people were struck, including an 18-year-old tourist from Michigan who died. The woman's 13-year-old sister was among the injured.

The carnage raised immediate fears of terrorism, fueled by recent attacks in England, France and Germany in which vehicles plowed through crowds of pedestrians. But investigators quickly turned their focus to the sobriety and mental health of the driver, who they identified as Rojas.

"There is no indication that this was an act of terrorism," Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Photographers snapped pictures of Rojas that appeared to show him climbing from the wrecked car and running through the street before he was tackled by a group that included a muscular security supervisor at a nearby Planet Hollywood restaurant.

"He began screaming, no particular words, but just utter screaming. He was swinging his arms at the same time," said the bouncer, Ken Bradix. "There was something wrong with him."

Rojas initially tested negative for alcohol, but more detailed drug tests are pending, according to two law enforcement officials who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. The officials said Rojas told officers he had been hearing voices.

Police identified the woman killed by the car as Alyssa Elsman, of Portage, Michigan.

Elsman graduated last year from Portage Northern High School.

"If you didn't know her, you might think she's reserved, or shy," school principal Eric Alburtus said. "But if you could talk to her for a minute, you'd realize she was engaging. She was bright. She was funny."

Thursday's mayhem began at noon on a hot, clear day that brought large crowds of people into the streets to enjoy the good weather.

Police said Rojas had been driving south on Seventh Avenue when he made a quick U-turn at 42nd Street and drove up the sidewalk for three blocks, passing tourist draws like the Hard Rock Cafe and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant.

Security camera video showed people being flung in bunches over the car's hood.

"People just got stunned," said Bruno Carvalho, a student at SUNY Albany. "I don't think there was actually time for screaming."

"He didn't stop," said Asa Lowe, of Brooklyn, who was standing outside a store when he saw people scatter. "He just kept going."

The White House said President Donald Trump was briefed about the situation.

The apartment building where Rojas lives was cordoned off by police Thursday. It was unclear when Rojas, who was in custody, would get a lawyer or be arraigned.

The sidewalks in many parts of Times Square are lined with metal posts designed to prevent cars from getting onto the sidewalks and other public areas. That network of barricades, though, is far from a complete defense. There are many areas where vehicles could be driven onto packed sidewalks or public plazas.

Sunita Prasad and her family, visiting from Guyana, were marveling at the sights when the car came toward them.

She pushed her children, 3 and 6, out of its path. But an uncle was struck on the head by a pole dislodged by the vehicle, relatives said as they left the hospital where he was being treated.

"We were just touring, seeing how beautiful Times Square was," Prasad said. "And this came."

Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.